Duplex Living: Then and Now

Their comfy Shady Drive East duplex suits Rebecca Nill and Claire, 11, well. It’s convenient to school—Claire’s in sixth grade—as well as to Uptown activities and public transit. They like the semi-open floor plan, the private backyard, and the front porch, where Rebecca can relax while keeping an eye on Claire and her friends.

Six years ago, Rebecca Nill was driving down Shady Drive East when she saw a For Rent sign in front of one of the duplexes that line the street. She called the owner immediately to arrange for a tour. As soon as she opened the door, “The sunlight shone through the stained glass windows onto the hardwood floors and I just knew it,” Nill says. “This is it.”

Nill had moved into an apartment here as a young interior designer and then to Sunset Hills after she married. Originally from Peters, she wanted to stay here after her divorce, not only to keep her daughter in the same school district but also because the accessibility to Pittsburgh was convenient for her career. But she didn’t want a big house and the responsibilities of homeownership, and she didn’t like the idea of moving back into an apartment like she’d lived in during her 20s.

The smart owner remodeled the Nills’ space but retained distinctive historic features such as stained-glass windows.

The two-story Shady Drive East duplex, with its original Art Nouveau stained glass windows framing a brick fireplace, had been restored. The owner had pulled up green shag carpet to reveal gleaming hardwood floors and had updated the bathroom and kitchen. New windows muffled  sounds of the street and the nearby T. A wall-to-wall closet in the master bedroom provided all the space a modern clotheshorse needs.

Nill added sweat equity. From warm interior touches—a  crackling electric fireplace and plush oriental rugs—to landscaping, she’s made it an urban oasis. In the summer, she leans back in her reclining chair beside her outdoor firepit and looks up at the stars shining through the trees. “It’s like I could be in the country.
“It couldn’t be more perfect. I don’t even feel like someone lives right next to me. It feels like I have my own house,” she says.

The Shady Drive East duplexes, most built in the late 1920s when housing boomed here, are part of Mt. Lebanon’s National Register Historic District.  But expanded housing options Uptown and the barrier that the T station creates between the commercial district and Shady Drive East make the duplexes  a sometimes overlooked reminder of Mt. Lebanon’s beginnings. 

Shady East gets a lot of foot traffic—early morning runners and commuters, families walking with dogs and strollers, and kids headed home from school. The neighborhood has its own rhythm. “It’s kind of exciting,” Nill says. She often sits on her front porch while her daughter, Claire, 11, plays. In summer, neighborhood kids set up their lemonade stand, timing it for the afternoon rush of commuters walking home from the T.

Up-and-down duplex on Morrison Drive.

Andy Reinoso chose the neighborhood to be close to his job in Upper St. Clair. But even if it wasn’t close to work, he says he’d  like living in this location. It was the architectural details that sold Reinoso on his 94-year-old duplex. From the finished wood-lined laundry chutes to the built-in kitchen cupboards, Reinoso admires the high-quality workmanship: “I like the old-fashioned charm.”

Neighbor Val Brown agrees that her favorite thing about the neighborhood is the location. “We can walk up to Uptown or down to Luma or Caliente (on Castle Shannon Boulevard),” she says, naming popular restaurants. “It’s a good place to be.” Her three-bedroom home “has a lot more space than you’d expect from a duplex,” she adds.

Shared driveways and garages behind the buildings show the duplexes were designed for the early automobile suburb Mt. Lebanon became after the Liberty Tunnels opened in 1924. But the houses have semi-open floor plans on the main floors, creating the look that has become desirable.

This side-by-side duplex on “upper” Pennsylvania Boulevard was built in 1930 just across from the trolley line. where the T now runs. Detached garages line an alley behind, making it a good housing choice for people with or without cars.

Duplexes were popular throughout the 20th century, but not all survived to the 21st. Mt. Lebanon is fortunate to have retained its older duplexes. Good examples can be found on Castle Shannon Boulevard, Pennsylvania Boulevard and Lemoyne Avenue, all near Shady East, as well as in the Lincoln School area, including on North Meadowcroft Avenue and Ralston Place, and across from Howe School on Broadmoor. And many houses along Cochran Road between Beverly and Bower Hill are duplexes, some side-by-side, some up-and-down, others sharing a perpendicular wall like the two-family homes in today’s Main-Line II.

Charles Succop is a board member for the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon and manages the society’s Facebook page. He is passionate about sharing his love of Pittsburgh’s buildings, and he says his Instagram account, @pittsburghistory has a growing following. Succop provides an overview of how duplexes  became part of the mix of local housing:

In the early 1900s,  this area, then part of  Scott, was a quiet farming community. To get here from Pittsburgh meant an arduous drive over  Mt. Washington and along bumpy rural roads. But by 1912, when Mt. Lebanon was founded, farmers saw opportunity coming their way. The problems of densely populated cities, including Pittsburgh, were driving people away, Succop says. “They wanted clean air; they wanted space, and they wanted good homes.”

This row of up-and-down duplexes on North Meadowcroft across from Lincoln School is popular, as people can walk up to the Beverly business district, as well as to the T.

The streetcar tunnel, finished in 1903, paved the way for development by allowing easy travel to and from the city to the end of the line—the trolley “loop” at what is now Clearview Common.  Still, people wanted to drive their cars in and out of the heart of Mt. Lebanon. So, when drilling for the Liberty Tunnels began in 1920, investors bet on expansion and pulled out their pocketbooks, making local farmers impressive offers. In less than a decade after the tunnels opened in 1924, real estate brokers had gone from advertising Mt. Lebanon as a “fine location” to start a poultry farm to promoting it as an “ideal place” to raise a family with all the benefits but none of the downsides of city living.

One investor was Pittsburgh attorney Edwin W. Smith, president of Mt. Lebanon Cemetery Company, which sold lots in his Mt. Lebanon Park Plan, an orchard that adjoined the cemetery. Groundwork for the Shady Drive East duplexes was laid in April 1925 when the township’s planning book indicates Lot 1 in the E.W. Smith subdivision would have a “two-story” frame dwelling” built there by Robert E. Murray. Murray was an architect who had designed several prominent homes in the area. The duplexes that flank Shady Drive East appear to have been made and sold by his construction company, Murray Homes.

The first Mt. Lebanon duplexes, on Shady Drive, were ready for occupancy by October 1925.

By October 1925 the “doubles” were advertised for rent, described as having all the modern conveniences—tiled bathrooms, coal or gas furnaces with air vents, ample clothes and linen closets and hardwood floors. Rent was $70 to $80 a month (or about $950-$1,100 in 2017 dollars), around what they go for today. These and other duplexes in Mt. Lebanon provided an inexpensive form of housing in a time when home ownership was out of reach for many. They bridged the gap between city and country, offering urban-style multi-family living with the look of a single-family home, along with porches and backyards for children to play in.

For many people, duplexes are as appealing today as they were nearly a century ago, and for many of the same reasons. At the top of the list: young professionals and retirees alike enjoy having a house without the burdens that come with ownership.

Nill recalls the day an old man parked in front of her duplex and walked up and down the sidewalk looking at the houses.  Finally, he stopped at hers. This was his childhood home, he said. He fondly described playing sandlot baseball in an empty field across the street in what is now Main-Line. One of Mt. Lebanon’s original farmhouses (the Snyder-Bockstoce House, demolished after Main-Line was built) still sat on the land back then, a remnant of a forgotten era for those children of the Depression and WWII. The man pointed to  an indentation in the bricks on Nill’s front porch, where his mother had built a baby gate to keep his younger siblings from wandering off. “The stories these walls could tell,” Nill says. “There’s been so many people through this house.”

Nill hopes more people will invest in the duplexes in Mt. Lebanon’s historic neighborhoods, preserving and restoring them for future generations to enjoy. “I wish I could buy them all and fix them up,” she says.